Pablo Picasso once said “My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.” That’s a lot of ego, but it’s not unwarranted.
Pablo Picasso was full of himself. He was a jerk to the multiple girlfriends and wives he had throughout his life. But, he was a genius. Les Demoiselles D’Avignon perfectly explains why. For years now, artists like Cezanne, Van Gogh and others were taking baby steps away from veracity and playing with abstraction. Picasso dumps realism at the altar and runs in to the open embrace of abstraction.
Cubism, as pioneered by Picasso, plays with viewer’s perspective. Rather than attempt to use traditional perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on the canvas, Picasso shows us all the dimensions of an object by alternating the planes of vision. Les Demoiselles is an early effort. Picasso allows you to see different parts of the women’s bodies at weird angles through the blocky geometric shapes.
But the play on perspective isn’t only in within the geometric angles and planes. You can read the entire composition of the painting in two ways. Most obviously, you can see the scene as if you walked through a door, where the bottom of the painting is the ground, the top the ceiling, and the women stand in a room. But, you can also read it from a bird’s eye view, as if you were looking down on the scene. In this perspective, the women are lying on a bed, presumably post-cloital. You are looking down on them, as if suspended above. Totally, trippy. And totally ingenuous.
The idea that the women might actually be laying on a bed plays into the painting’s subtler message. The demoiselles d’Avignon are a group of prostitutes. Demoiselles in French, can be innocent a term for a young lady, or it can refer to the women of the demi-monde, the racy, Parisian nightlife scene. *Cough* Prostitutes *Cough*
Picasso had a timeless message for his viewers: practice safe sex! This is only a slight oversimplification. Original sketches and under-paintings, initially included a sailor and a doctor holding a skull. These figures, which were eventually eliminated, would have been clear allusions to syphillis. In Picasso’s time the disease was closely associated with sailors who contracted it through their interactions with ladies of the night and often deadly. In eliminating the sailor and the doctor, Picasso effectively puts the viewer in the place of patron, forcing them to consider the dangers and temptations of playing fast and loose in the underworld.
In one swoop, Picasso manages to upend western artistic tradition dating back to the Renaissance and offer a moralizing message about the dangers of sex and the lifestyle of Europe’s demi-monde.